U.S. Says NATO Enlargement is Not a Threat to Russia; Kremlin Says NATO Expansion to East Will Lead to Retaliation from Russia
Reuters - NATO invited tiny Montenegro on Wednesday to join the military alliance in its first expansion since 2009, defying Russian warnings that enlargement of the U.S.-led bloc further into the Balkans is "irresponsible" action that undermines trust.
In a scripted session at NATO's headquarters in Brussels, Montenegro's Foreign Minister Igor Luksic strode into the imposing conference hall to loud applause from his peers as NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg declared:
"This is the beginning of a very beautiful alliance."U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the decision to invite Montenegro was not directed at Russia.
"NATO is not a threat to anyone ... it is a defensive alliance, it is simply meant to provide security," Kerry told a news conference. "It is not focussed on Russia or anyone else."NATO diplomats said the decision sends a message to Moscow that it does not have a veto on the alliance's eastwards expansion, even if Georgia's membership bid has been complicated by its 2008 war with Russia.
Moscow opposes any NATO extension to former communist areas of eastern and southeastern Europe, part of an east-west struggle for influence over former Soviet satellites that is at the centre of the crisis in Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in September that any expansion of NATO was "a mistake, even a provocation". In comments to Russian media then, he said NATO's so-called open door policy was "an irresponsible policy that undermines the determination to build a system of equal and shared security in Europe."
RIA news agency cited a Russian senator as saying on Wednesday that Russia will end joint projects with Montenegro if the ex-Communist country joins the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The Adriatic state of 650,000 people is expected to become a member formally next year.
Viktor Ozerov, head of the Russian Federation Council's defence and safety committee, said the projects which could be axed included those in military areas, RIA reported.
NATO foreign ministers broke off practical cooperation with Russia in April last year after Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and sparked the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 8,000 people. They can still talk to Russia through political and military channels, however.
Still, NATO allies are divided over what message to send to Georgia over its long-delayed membership bid, with some European capitals arguing the alliance would be unable to defend the ex-Soviet state in the event of a conflict with Russia.
Those difficulties were underlined by a foreign ministers' joint statement that provided little momentum in Georgia's membership talks.
Ministers repeated their long-held position that Tbilisi must continue to prepare for membership one day, calling for Russia's military to withdraw from Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Russia's continued presence there and agreements signed between Russia and the two regions "blatantly contradict the principles of international law," the statement said.
NATO's founding treaty deems an attack against one ally an attack against all, giving any member a guarantee of protection. But Georgia, which is a partner but not an ally, does not qualify for any such protection.
NATO membership is also dependent on a country settling any outstanding territorial disputes - another big hurdle for Georgia.
After Albania and Croatia joined NATO in 2009, only Serbia, Russia's closest ally in the Balkans, is the only Balkan country not actively pursuing membership of the alliance. Foreign ministers signaled support for Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but neither are expected to join soon.
Even though Montenegro has now been invited, it could take months for it formally to join. But Stoltenberg said he expected accession talks to go quickly, suggesting that the small Balkan state might become a member at the next summit of NATO leaders in July in Warsaw.
Associated Press - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that NATO members stood ready to step up military efforts against the Islamic State and held out hope of broadening cooperation between the West and Russia to end Syria's protracted civil war.
These steps would come on top of Germany's recent approval for sending forces and materiel for a non-combat support role near the Middle East, and a British vote Wednesday that could authorize expanded airstrikes by that country against IS in Syria.
Kerry said he called on each of the other 27 members of alliance to do more to strike at the extremist group's core in Iraq and Syria and strangle its international networks. He said U.S. partners in the region, including NATO member Turkey, should receive defensive assistance.
Kerry said military assistance wouldn't mean ground troops or direct fighting for some countries. The effort to expand operations, which has gained steam since last month's attack in Paris, will require more medical facilities, intelligence gathering, military support structure, refueling operation, greater aerial defenses and other action, he said.
"There are a number of things countries can do," Kerry told reporters.
Kerry said Iraq's government was briefed in advance of the U.S. announcement. He said Washington would work with Baghdad on what types of forces deployed, where they go and what types of missions they conduct. He expressed "full and total respect" for al-Abadi's leadership, and said plans would go forward "in full consultation and with full consent of the Iraqi government."
Kerry repeated Obama's argument from a day ago that no peace in Syria would be possible while its president, Bashar Assad, remained in power. But he said an international mediation effort that now includes Assad's backers — Russia and Iran — recognizes the need to maintain the Syrian state and key services such as health and education. Seeing those dismantled, as happened after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, would be "disastrous," Kerry said.
He added that Russia and Iran continue to have a different view on Assad.
The top NATO commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said the coalition in Syria has come to terms with Russia over how to avoid incidents with the two forces operating in the same country _ if generally striking different targets. Russia has insisted it is also fighting IS, also known as ISIL [and ISIS and Daesh].
“The vast majority of their sorties are still against the moderate opposition and those forces that oppose Assad,” Breedlove said. “Whereas the coalition is focused almost entirely on ISIL.”